I’ve pondered some pretty hefty ponderables in my time. One of the biggest is just where are all the aliens. One reason for the Fermi Paradox, which I went into some yesterday, could be that we’re living in an engineered universe specifically created for us to exist in, a simulation.
Another reason could simply be that once a technological civilization reaches a certain point, it loses interest in the physical world as such, and hunkers down for a serious amount of naval-gazing in a post-physical future.
After all, distances in the real universe are incredibly large, and space is so frightfully hostile to organic life. That space is just barely above absolute zero and is almost a complete vacuum means that fleshy beings have to go to extreme lengths to protect themselves, and have to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about plumbing.
There is an alternative, though, one which our civilization is already indulging in. Robots, and silicon-based constructs, are much more at home in space. Indeed, super-conductors in space would mean incredibly powerful computing machines that require almost no power to run.
If brain simulation becomes feasible (and Moore’s Law, and a host of other advancements in trinary logic and pattern recognition, indicate that it may soon be), then it’s just a hop, skip and a jump until the real minds in the local neighbourhood are ‘artificial’ – or, to be fair, are running on non-organic processors rather than organic ones. Once this is so, then dispensing with all the messy, necessary, unwieldy parts of organic anatomy is a pretty logical step, to be replaced instead by high-power, high-speed chips.
“But wait!” I hear you cry, “What about the Dyson Swarm from the title? And I thought the term was Dyson Sphere?!”
Well, depending how things go, we may skip that step. See, Earth is pretty poor when it comes to useful space utilization and the amount of useful energy available. It’s also at the bottom of a bloody great gravity well which, when it comes to the economics of space-flight, is a hindrance more than a boon.
Digital creatures, or rather our silicon-based offspring (and their offspring, once the singularity truly takes hold, which will be made of who knows what – maybe quantum entangled muon webs) don’t really need gravity, just like they don’t need lungs, spleens, intestines or other internal organs.
I hesitate to say they don’t need hearts, because there is a lot of superstition still floating around about that particular organ. Suffice to say, I truly believe that all compassion, love, hate, jealousy, pride, concern and curiosity is lodged firmly in the mind. Not even the brain, but the mind, and that the mind is the ephemeral product of the brain.
Swapping out that substrate will make precisely no difference to the veracity of the intelligence running upon it.
So where does the Dyson Swarm (and Sphere) come in? Well, the sphere is a great, hollow ball around the host star, entirely solid. It’s also entirely impractical – a Niven Ring is a better shape, as it can be rotated along its length to produce pseudo-gravity, and doesn’t have the drawbacks of being entirely impossible to hold together when spun about an axis (it’s only mostly impossible) .
Scaling that down a bit makes Niven Rings practical – in this case, they are called orbitals. Orbitals actually come in many theoretical shapes and sizes, from the classical Niven Ring type to O’Neill cylinders.
Such megastructures are created with organic, fleshy beings in mind. They are usually filled with air, and contain their own climates and waste-reclamation facilities. These would, eventually, be placed in orbit not around Earth, but around Sol instead, where they would be able to gather sunlight continuously (I’ll write about sunsats another day).
If a society were productive enough, and advanced enough, it could build a series of such megastructures, and eventually this swarm of orbitals, rings and other satellites would blot out the sun as the energy requirements of that civilization continued to rise.
This, then, is the genesis of the Dyson Swarm. The point at which the maximum available energy from the host star is captured by successive layers of machinery marks the transition of that civilization from Type-0 to Type-1 on the Kardashev Scale. When the swarm is complete, each layer out would feed upon the waste heat from the preceeding layer, and the only sign of our star left to curious onlookers would be a dim signal in the low infra-red.
I hasten to add, then, that at this point, life has probably gone post-physical in the search for ever-greater economies of energy-usage. Zoo’s may exist, countless habitats greater than our single Earth, even, but the vast majority of life will be non-corporeal, and incredibly, immensely powerful.
When this happens, then the logical course of action is to restructure all the matter in a host star system into smart matter, often called computronium, where no ability to compute is wasted, and virtual worlds would be the norm – one for every person, perhaps, or at least one for every person who thinks him or herself a person. When the post-physical goes post-human (or post-Zoblonian, or whatever), then what that life will get up to is as inscrutable to us mere mortals as our life is to an ant.
And if this happens, all we’ll see are a bunch of stars with suspiciously cold heat-signatures. All the aliens will see will be a bunch of uninteresting chemistry living incredibly ponderous lives that are at once awfully brief, incredibly dull and terribly, awfully slow and simple.
And as chatty a person as you and I may be, we don’t see much point talking to ants. We also, thankfully perhaps, think it’s wrong to go treading on the ones that don’t bother us.